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News and views from St. Mary's Woodbridge
Issue 11 Spring 2010

Poets of prayer

Lord teach us to pray – words used by Christ’s disciples and, I imagine, the kind of request many of us would still make today. How do we find our way to God? Is it through the natural world; through music; painting; sculpture; poetry; icons? For most of us, one, or a combination of these, can provide a powerful support to prayer.

In his book, Ponder these things, Archbishop Rowan Williams writes: “What we call holy in the world – a person, a place, a set of words or pictures – is so because it is a transitional place, a borderland, where the completely foreign is brought together with the familiar. Here is somewhere that looks as if it belongs within the world we are at home in, but in fact it leads directly into strangeness.” For me a set of words, namely in poetry, has the ability to stir the embers to inspire and direct the mind.

The Welsh poet R S Thomas was much concerned by the absence of God, whom he describes as “that great void we must enter”. Never-theless, he perceived him as an unseen presence, as in his poem, Adjustments:

Patiently with invisible structures he builds,
and as patiently we must pray,
surrendering the ordering of the ingredients to a wisdom that is beyond our own.
We must change the mood to the passive.

And, again, in the silence of the void:

But the silence in the mind is where we live best,
within listening distance of the silence we call God.
This is the deep calling to deep of the psalm- writer,
the bottomless ocean we launch the armada of our thoughts on, never arriving.

It is a presence, then, whose margins are our margins;
that calls us out over our own fathoms,
What to do but draw a little nearer to such ubiquity by remaining still?


Being silent and listening is frequently advised as a way of drawing closer to God, and I find the words of the American poet, Mary Oliver, comforting in their simplicity:

It doesn’t have to be the blue iris,
it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones;
just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate,
this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks,
and a silence in which another voice may speak.